Two short reviews this week, both of detective stories. The first is set in Victorian London, the second in Madrid in the run-up to the Spanish Civil War.
Death Comes But Twice
This is the second of David Field’s detective mysteries featuring the pathologist James Carlyle and the preacher Matthew West. The characters having been well established in the first book Field now has more opportunity to concentrate on the story, but for people who are new to the series the first chapter summarises all the important relationships quickly and efficiently
Carlyle is experimenting with the new-fangled idea of fingerprints and in the course of collecting samples he discovers that a corpse brought in to the morgue after a murder is apparently that of a man who Matthew West had seen hanged. How had the villain escaped death when West, in his pastoral role, had been present to see him dropped at Newgate? As a detective mystery, it is not up there with the best of Agatha Christie, but it’s a reasonable puzzle with a solution which does make sense. As far as the story is concerned, though, the significance of a mystery which involves a failed hanging is that it allows Field to discuss the mechanics of capital punishment and present arguments for its abolition. This provides the main subtext to the mystery element, though the developing romance between West and Carlyle’s daughter is another important thread.
Field is familiar with his period as demonstrated by an interesting historical note at the end of the book. There are no obvious errors that bring you out of the story and, while the characters are probably more liberal in their attitudes than the average Londoner of the time, their beliefs are credible given the social backgrounds that they come from.
If you enjoy Victorian murder mysteries this is a series that is definitely worth visiting.
A Murder of No Consequence
I picked this up as it was being promoted as a free offer on Amazon and I wanted to read a detective story. Depressingly often these free books seem to be somewhat overpriced and I read a few pages before giving up. This one, however, grabbed me from the opening lines.
“Madrid, that summer, was a city suffocating under a blanket of heat and a dark cloud of fear. Armed gangs roamed the streets like packs of rabid dogs. Shots cut through the night air; the rattle of machine-gun bullets punctuated the usual afternoon calm. Anarchists shot fascists, socialists killed communists. In the first week of July alone eleven young men were murdered for their political beliefs.”
We are in 1936 on the eve of the Spanish Civil War. It’s not a place or time I know much about (unless we’re moving over 100 years earlier and following Wellington as he marched through the peninsula). James Garcia Woods, though, obviously knows the period well. There’s a lot of historical detail about specific incidents during 1936, but what I found made the book for me was the sense of living in a society that is falling apart around you. Our hero, Inspector Ruiz, is an honest policeman, trying to do his job, solving the murder of a young woman. But the young woman was the mistress of a senior politician and policemen do not get to “just do their job” once politics are involved. Ruiz comes up against the realities of trying to enforce the law in a country where law and order are breaking down. We see the breakdown at every level: by reference to great political events, the continual interference by politicians in his investigation, and the way that the growing political divisions in the country come to intrude on the personal relationships and friendships of the characters.
The characterisation and back stories are almost all utterly convincing – the exception being the beautiful American student who is there, it seems, just to provide romantic interest and to give Ruiz an outsider to whom he can explain details of Spanish society that the reader cannot be expected to know.
In the end, dogged determination means Ruiz is able to solve the murder and achieve some kind of justice. It is, though, meaningless. A man who would have been shot out of hand in the political upheavals is, instead, to be executed for murder.
At one level, Ruiz’s crusade is utterly pointless, but at another it is vital. Ruiz represents the small man, a state functionary who holds to his principles and tries to do the right thing even when everything around him is collapsing.
I picked this up as a detective story, not as a historical novel, but it is, in fact, the very best kind of historical novel. The story makes sense only because of its historical context and we come to understand the history much better for seeing how it impinged on everyday life – even if everyday life here is a murder investigation. It’s also, I think, an important lesson in why historical fiction matters. These events were happening in a Western European nation less than a century ago. As we see our own political system becoming increasingly divided and politicians increasingly ready to interfere in the running of civil society, we need to be ready to learn from the lessons of history. These things can happen again and not just in Spain. What we need now is more men like Inspect Ruiz.